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Nancy Smith

Toxic Martin County Waters Spark Senators' Anger, Resolve

August 22, 2013 - 6:00pm

As long as I've known Joe Negron, I've never seen him show as much emotion as he did Thursday listening to citizens -- many of them his neighbors -- pouring out their hearts, one after another, about the plight of the toxic, black St. Lucie estuary and Indian River Lagoon.

Never seen his eyes connect with so many people addressing him during a comment period. As a result, not much is off the table for "Sympathy Man" Negron, R-Stuart -- except maybe septic tanks, identified as a major problem in all counties with dying fish, birds and wildlife, but a problem with a solution the senator is loath to entertain. More about that later.

The eight senators on Negron's Senate Select Committee on the lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin gathered in Stuart at a senior-center auditorium with an overflow crowd, riveted for eight full hours on five panels of expert testimony and citizens who wanted to be heard.

Theidea of the committee is to quit talking and stop the bleeding. Find a short-term solution to this many-faceted environmental disaster, one headed toward long-term solution when Everglades restoration infrastructure is complete -- not until at least 2018 and probably longer.

Heavy rains since spring have forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to order excess fresh-water pumped from Lake Okeechobee. The discharges are sent east into the St. Lucie Canal and west into the Caloosahatchie, to keep the Herbert Hoover dike from breaking.

Senators listened in shock as a father told of his children instructed "not to touch the water;" as the Martin County riverkeeper pleaded to "stop the pumps in the Everglades Agricultural Area -- don't let sugar farms store water in areas we can use;" as a woman crying real tears told them, "we're not in a state of emergency, we're in a terminal state;" as children showed dramatic pictures of sea creatures once alive, now dead; as residents and officials from Fort Myers to Sanibel to Vero Beach to Hobe Sound spoke of once-flourishing businesses gone, the local economy crumbling, a way of life lost.

Clearly, the whole committee was moved by citizens' two- and three-minute stories. By the end of the day,against this backdropof lowered salinity, toxins from commercial fertilizer, toxins from feces -- a many-splendored cocktail of pollution to disrupt the fragile ecosystem of the most diverse estuary in America --members were ready to embrace all "ideas" presented.

Among the ones Negron said he will push the committee to explore:

-- Asking the governor to declare the Lake Okeechobee Basin, Caloosahatchee Estuary and Indian River Lagoon in a state of emergency. "I think I just need to find out exactly what a state of emergency means," said Negron.

-- Look at risk assessment factors. "Is the Army Corps ordering the discharges too soon? Could they let the water in the lake get a little higher? Let's see if we can find a way for Florida to decide when to discharge instead of the Corps."

-- Look at buying land still available on option from U.S. Sugar Corp. "On this Senate committee we have a lot of control of the budget. I'm pledging $100 million from next year's budget right now.

-- Get sugar farmers to give over for storage the ditches they're not using.

The last thought came from the large environmental contingent on hand -- for example, panelists Kevin Henderson and Mark Perry want all excess water to flow south, through sugar farmland. Just take the land you need, they said. Eminent domain. Sewall's Point Town Commissioner Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, on the same panel, told senators, "You have a right to take those lands."

Another idea was to raise the canal level in the EAA by 3 inches and send the water there. Ernie Barnett, interim executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, told me, "I don't think that one is going to fly. You would be raising the whole water table."

Col. Alan Dodd, commander and district engineer of the Army Corps, Jacksonville District, took offense at Negron's portrayal of the Corps as ineffectual."There are multiple decision points where action has to be taken and decisions have to be made," Dodd said. "We have some of the best people in the nation working on this in the Jacksonville district."

The Army Corps works to keep the lake level between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet. The reason: a major hurricane could increase the level to 19 feet. Dodd said when the lake is just above 18.5 feet, the risk of failure is at 45 percent.

For a while there, with some panelists, it was like listening to a couple of two-star generals debating collateral damage before a bombing -- as if, well, if we screw up and hold the water in the lake too long, there's going to be a few deaths south of Lake O, but it's only fair because there's going to be devastation to the east and west of the lake, too. So we go for balance and make the tough choice. Yipes.

Through the day, Negron and most senators slipped gently toward local residents, feeling their pain -- Negron, especially, who grew up in Palm Beach County but has been connected to the lagoon and estuary all his life. "This is a Florida problem," Negron said. "But it deserves national exposure." He asked Congressman Patrick Murphy, D-Palm Beach Gardens, who attended, to pursue money from Congress and remind President Obama that "he played golf looking out at these waters and they're in trouble now."

Septic tanks popped up much of the day, identified by scientists and agencies assigned to study them as a major water pollutant, not only on the Treasure Coast but on the Gulf side, too.But, when asked to include a septic-to-sewer conversion among his priorities, Negron said that philosophically, he would not be able to sign on to "anything that allowsthe government to come onto your land and tell you what you have to doto your property."

I hope the committee will help Sen. Negron rethink that one. He might want to consider the philosophicaldifference between, say,drowning a few hundred people in Belle Glade (collateral damage), andtelling residents it's a public health emergency, shut up and hook up..

Despite the philosophical glitch, Negron had a warmafternoon in Stuart. His caring showed andit was attractive on him.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423.

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